The banner decorating the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, when President Bush announced an end to "major combat operations" in Iraq, turns out to have been accurate after all. If only the president himself had taken to heart the banner's proclamation of "Mission Accomplished." For by that date, having deposed Saddam Hussein, the United States had achieved in Iraq just about all that it has the capacity to achieve. The time has come for Bush to dig the banner out of the closet, drape it across the front of the White House and make it the basis for policy instead of continuing under the inglorious banner of "Mission Impossible."
Ironically, ever since the presidential victory lap of two years ago, the Bush administration has been in the forefront of those insisting that the U.S. mission in Iraq is not accomplished -- that there is ever so much more that the United States can and must do on behalf of the Iraqi people. Hence the grandiose U.S. promises of reconstruction, economic and political reform, and nation-building.
The chief effect of efforts to fulfill these promises has been to convert a short, economical and purportedly glorious war into a long, costly and debilitating one.
Moreover, senior U.S. military leaders have increasingly concluded that the long war is an unwinnable one. "[T]his insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, acknowledged earlier this summer. "It's going to be settled in the political process." However self-serving it may be -- the military's eagerness to offload responsibility for the course of events in Iraq has become palpable of late -- Alston's analysis is correct.
Alas, the Bush administration adamantly insists that any such political process can only proceed with constant American coaching and oversight. Underlying this insistence is the assumption, seldom voiced openly, that the Iraqi people are incapable of managing their own affairs. They need us.
Do they? In fact, apart from consuming $300 billion and many thousands of lives (including more than 1,850 U.S. soldiers), the attempt to tutor Iraqis on their journey to American-style freedom has yielded results quite opposite from those intended: Rather than producing security, our continued massive military presence has helped fuel continuing violence. Rather than producing liberal democracy, our meddling in Iraqi politics has exacerbated political dysfunction. And by signaling the importance that it attributes to satisfying the core interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike, Washington has encouraged all three factions to increase their demands. Convinced that the Americans will never permit a cataclysmic collision, each faction is committed to playing a high-stakes game of chicken. If Iraq in August 2005 qualifies as the political equivalent of a clapped-out, self-abusing dependent, then the Bush administration ought to be recognized as being an enabler.
Wisdom requires that the Bush administration call an end to its misbegotten crusade. While avoiding the appearance of an ignominious dash for the exits, but with all due speed, the United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We've done all that we can do.
Getting out now makes sense not just to avoid further running up our bill, but because doing so holds out the prospect of a more favorable result. Granted, constructing a positive case for withdrawal requires a redefinition of purpose. From the outset, the Bush administration has focused on the wrong political objective. Rather than attempting to democratize Iraq as a first step toward "transforming" the Middle East, our proper aim should be to stabilize the country so that we can concentrate our energies on containing and eventually reducing the threat posed by violent Islamic radicals.
Stability -- defined as preserving a unified Iraq and reducing the insurgency -- cannot be imposed. It can only be negotiated by the various factions constituting the Iraqi polity. The issues dividing those factions are by no means trivial. But their common interest in maintaining the integrity of the state is also great. Announcing the U.S. departure will concentrate the minds of Iraqi leaders of all stripes. It will clear away any misconceptions regarding the consequences of secession.
In addition to assuming that Iraqis require American supervision, the Bush administration's insistence on staying the course also implicitly assumes that a U.S. withdrawal would leave a dangerous political vacuum in the region. But this assumption too is suspect. More likely, the American departure would foster a political dynamic in which Iraq's neighbors would exert themselves to keep Iraq from spinning out of control -- not out of any concern for the well-being of the Iraqi people but out of sheer self-interest.
Among the autocrats holding sway in the Persian Gulf, Saddam Hussein was the last remaining quasi-revolutionary. The regimes that control Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and even Iran are not maneuvering to overturn the political order in the region. This is not to say that they are benign. But they do share one overriding interest, namely preserving their own hold on power -- an objective not at all served by allowing Iraq to wallow in perpetual turmoil. Iraq's neighbors have a compelling interest in facilitating a political process that just might bring a semblance of order to that country. For religious, cultural and historical reasons, they are also far better positioned than the United States to offer assistance that might actually prove helpful.
Will a U.S. withdrawal guarantee a happy outcome for the people of Iraq? Of course not. In sowing the seeds of chaos through his ill-advised invasion, Bush made any such guarantee impossible. If one or more of the Iraqi factions chooses civil war, they will have it. Should the Kurds opt for independence, then modern Iraq will cease to exist. No outside power can prevent such an outcome from occurring anymore than an outside power could have denied Americans their own civil war in 1861.
Dismemberment is by no means to be desired and would surely visit even more suffering on the much-abused people of Iraq. But in the long run, the world would likely find ways to adjust to this seemingly unthinkable prospect just as it learned to accommodate the collapse of the Soviet Union, the division of Czechoslovakia and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
What will pulling out of Iraq mean for the United States? It will certainly not mean losing access to Iraqi oil, which will inevitably find its way to the market. To be sure, bringing the troops home will preclude the Pentagon from establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq -- but the Bush administration has said all along that we don't covet such bases anyway. In addition, withdrawal will put an end to extravagant expectations of using Iraq as a springboard for democratizing the Islamic world -- but that notion never qualified as more than a pipe dream anyway.
For Bush personally, the consequences of leaving Iraq might be the most painful. The prospect of looking antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan in the eye to explain exactly what her son died for will become even more daunting. But as it is, the president can't dodge that question indefinitely. Postponing the issue simply swells the ranks of those with similar questions to ask.
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Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War" (Oxford).